Assembly Panel Advances Vainieri Huttle, Lagana & Eustace Port Authority Reform Bill Creating Stricter Oversight and Financial Controls at Bi-State Agency

Legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Joseph Lagana and Tim Eustace to institute long-awaited reforms at the beleaguered Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) was approved by an Assembly panel on Monday.

The bill (A-2184), known as the "Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Transparency and Accountability Act," will guarantee legislative oversight of the agency as it undertakes a number of high profile construction projects critical to the region's future.

"Trying to get identical legislation agreed upon and passed in both houses of two separate legislatures is no easy feat, especially legislation that remains true to our intent and tackles our main goals. But after a lengthy, multi-year process, I'm confident that we've come to an agreement that does just that," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "This legislation is comprehensive in nature and tackles the key elements that we have been concerned with - incorporating legislative oversight, fiscal safeguards, transparency and accountability. Cumulatively, these provisions will help transform an agency once mired in waste, abuse and scandal into one that operates with the best interests of tri-state commuters in mind."

The new legislation incorporates all of the management, ethics and transparency reforms included in the Port Authority bill that has already been signed into law in New York, but also provides legislative oversight, capital project monitoring and labor protection provisions negotiated over the past several months with New York Assemblyman James Brennan, the lead sponsor of the New York bill. Brennan has lauded the compromise and pledged to introduce identical legislation in New York.

The compromise legislation gives the New York and New Jersey legislatures the right to require the appearance of the Port Authority's chair or vice-chair, chief executive officer, chief fiscal officer and any other staff for up to two committee hearings each year before each legislative body.

"New Jersey and New York commuters have paid the price for the Port Authority's mismanagement for far too long," said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). "This bill will finally institute much needed financial control, transparency and fiscal management to help rein in costs and improve efficiency."

The bill also institutes stricter controls when it comes to toll or fare increases by requiring that an independent needs assessment be conducted prior to any increase in tolls for the use of any port authority bridge or tunnel or fares for the PATH system. The bill also requires the port authority to hold at least six public hearings not less than 30 days and not more than 90 days prior to any vote or action taken by the board relating to any increase in tolls or fares.

"The last time tolls hikes were approved it was under a cloak of darkness with rushed hearings being held in remote locations during business hours when most people can't attend," said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). "We're changing all that now to institute greater transparency and accountability so taxpayers will have far greater input into how their dollars are spent." 

The bill also includes a section suggested by New Jersey transportation experts that requires the Port Authority to give 60-days advance notice and to hold public hearings in each state prior to the adoption of a new 10-year capital plan, and to conduct a public hearing every three years providing a capital status update on the progress and costs of all projects. 

The bill also requires independent monitoring of all capital projects costing more than $500 million - a category that would include the new Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Gateway Rail Tunnel and other major projects.

When it comes to transparency, the bill provides that all meetings of the port authority are to be open to the public and members of the news media, unless a majority of the commissioners votes that a portion of the meeting may be conducted in closed session, and meeting agendas must be made available to the public at least 72 hours before each meeting.  

The legislation also includes 60-days notice of the issuance of debt by any subsidiary corporation set up by the Port Authority, an important requirement with the Port Authority likely to set up a subsidiary in conjunction with Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation to build the Gateway Tunnel. 

The bill also includes language requested by Port Authority unions requiring investigations to be conducted in accordance with procedures established in existing labor contracts. 

The bill also requires the port authority to publish a comprehensive annual financial report; prepare annual financial statements in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles; and have an independent firm of certified public accountants perform an audit of the financial statements each year.  

The bill, which has already been approved by the full Senate, was approved by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee today and now awaits final legislative consideration by the full Assembly.